I've been reading, among the fifteen or twenty books I keep beside my bed and read a little from each most nights (okay, I'm a print junkie and get bored easily with any one approach to the use of language, which some initials these days label perfectly I'm sure, but to me that's just part of what makes life interesting), three large format books that combine prose with photographs and all are about cultural icons: Bob Dylan, Elvis Preseley, and Jack Kerouac.
The Dylan book publishes mostly never before seen Douglas R. Gilbert photographs of Dylan at the point in his life and career when he was transforming himself (and being transformed by the times and circumstances of his situation) from boy-man into cultural/rock icon. As you can see from this photo on the cover, there was still an openess, even innocence to him, but remarkably, in the course of this photo shoot that played out mostly in Woodstock over a period of days, you can actually see him being transformed.
The commentary by Dave Marsh that accompanies the photos is pretty astute, though I disagree with some of the judgments and conclusions. Nonetheless, it's informative and adds a few new twists to any perspective on this mostly self-created character and his genuis, not just musically and word-wise, but a genuis for manipulating perceptions of himself as well. Worth checking out.
This Elvis book might seem initially to some readers like a cheezy thrown together fan scrapbook or patch work of public record reprints. but it is actually a gem. I love books like these, edited and researched by true fans, in this case Jerry Osborne, with little or no budget so that the photos aren't screened properly and come off like 1950s bad tabloid reprints, and the minutiae of the star's careers is presented as earth shattering or at least of great importance.
And in my experience, it usually is. I have books like this that chronicle every movie appearance Marylin Monroe ever made, or Elvis, even, and especially, the overlooked cheesiest or most minor, etc. They're usually not that expensive to begin with, and I mostly find them on remainder tables where they're selling for even less, a few dollars at most (I think this was five or six). But in the end, they are put together with love and appreciation of the star's life and career in ways that professional critics or cultural academics or even gossip columnists and pop journalists couldn't do (although Osborne has published other books, mostly on record collecting, they all grew out of his obsession with Elvis recordings—he is a true fan, acknowledged even by Presley himself as one of his most avid).
In the case of ELVIS WORD FOR WORD, what you get is the transcripts of every known public utterance of Elvis, as well as any verifiable written word (including telegrams that can be definitively credited to him and not one of his underlings). They're strung together chronilogically with no comment other than to identify the place and the interviewer, if one is involved, and most of the text is from interviews.
As a result, what you end up with, is one of the most candid and revealing and poignant and insightful (auto)biograhies you might ever read about a prominent personality. You can see the toll that his meteoric rise to fame took on him, as you can also see his youth and inexperience overshadowed by his innate intelligence. The guy was much smarter and more aware of what he was trying to accomplish than I had previously given him credit for, at least in the early years.
If you like Elvis, or grew up in the era that he dominated, at least in popular culture, you might find this more than a nostalgia trip, in fact, actually enlightening. (Just one example is how almost all the interviewers get that Elvis was an entertainer and a very original and bright one who figured out an angle that was working better than anything else at the time, as opposed to seeing him as a threat or a diamond in the rough exhibition in a freak show, etc.)
This is the most serious of the three books. BEATIFIC SOUL: JACK KEROUAC ON THE ROAD is a documentation of the exhibit that the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue ran (and may still be running) earlier this year. It doesn't document everything in the exhibit, but it has numerous photos of manuscript pages and notebooks pages and paintings and drawings and photographs, along with a text that's scholarly, well-researched and footnoted, and revealing.
For my taste it overemphasizes Kerouac's weak points, his allegiance to his parents petty prejudices, like the anti-semitic and anti-homosexual remarks he was famous for saying and writing in letters and journals. There's an attempt at balance in the telling of Kerouac's story and the evolution of his craft, making it clear that by many of his actions Kerouac obviously expressed an opposition to his family's prejudices and narrow-mindedness.
But like many recent Kerouac studies, it tries too hard to hold him to the academic's own narrow categorizations, when Kerouac—as much as Elvis and Dylan, and most great creators in any art or even in other fields—transcend categories. It's what makes them so unique and at the same time so representative of the inner lives of most of us. Who, in fact, is consistent on a moment to moment basis throughout their lives to the same standards and ideals and ideas and perceptions? Only fictional characters are capable of doing that, as far as I can see from my experience.
At any rate, it's one of the best books you could buy about Kerouac, because Isaac Gerwitz, despite his sensitivity to certain aspects of Kerouac's humanity and lack of sensitivity to other particulars (like the deeper resonances of Kerouac's Catholic mysticism, which I can certainly understand, as well as the influence of his ethnic-American cultural perspective), still gathers more information and insight into Keroauc the artist than most texts on this master of his craft, no matter what your opinion of what his craft manifested.